Be careful out there.

“COVID-19 cases and positivity rate of tests are on the rise in Cochise County,” according to Alicia Thompson, Cochise Health and Social Services director.

That rate has been steadily increasing for six months. Part of the problem, she said, is that the delta variant is much more virulent, “meaning it is better at spreading and making people sick.”

Another issue is there are many people in the community who go about unprotected.

“We still have a large portion of our community members who are not vaccinated and who have not yet gotten COVID-19, so there is a large pool of people who are vulnerable to becoming infected with the virus,” Thompson said.

On Wednesday, the Cochise County Healthcare Alliance met in an emergency meeting to discuss the problems patients in county hospitals are experiencing due to the COVID-19 surge.

“The situation is grim,” Thompson said. “Every person in our community who has chosen not to be vaccinated can help by knowing how to stay out of the emergency room. When you are diagnosed with COVID-19, ask your primary care provider about receiving one of the therapeutics to keep you from experiencing severe disease. Don’t wait until you are so sick you have to go to the ER.”

County hospitals are experiencing an increased number of patients being hospitalized, said Camila Rochin, county public information officer, in a press release received by the Herald/Review Wednesday night.

CCHA is comprised of the Cochise County Health Department, local hospitals and additional community partners. They met to discuss the situation, collaborate on resource needs and find solutions to deal with the increased health care needs of patients, both with COVID-19 illness and non-COVID related medical emergencies.

Rochin said local hospitals are “low on resources, struggling with nurse shortages and are now experiencing long wait times for non-COVID patients to be transferred out to larger hospitals for higher levels of care.

“During the hospitals update portion of the meeting, local hospitals expressed their needs for additional support with patient care and transfers. Wait times for non-COVID patients to be transferred to larger hospitals in Tucson are averaging 48 to 96 hours.”

Canyon Vista Medical Center is busy with people who are seriously ill, although the numbers have dropped a bit in recent days.

“We have 18 positive COVID patients in the hospital. This is 40% of our patients on our acute care floor,” said Alexis Ramanjulu, marketing and communications coordinator for Canyon Vista Medical Center, on Nov. 18.

Ramanjulu said Wednesday that the hospital still had 16 COVID patients.

Copper Queen Community Hospital in Bisbee shut down its operating room on Monday night, said Edward Miller, the facility’s chief medical officer. He said that became necessary to ensure there are sufficient people to staff the medical-surgical unit.

Miller said he hopes to reopen it Monday.

Copper Queen is also struggling to transfer patients, while 40% of their bed utilization is taken up by COVID–19 patients.

Benson Community Hospital is experiencing line holds when trying to initiate a transfer for non-COVID patients.

Rates are rising in Willcox as well, according to Mo Sheldon, CEO of Northern Cochise County Hospital.

“Our community and our hospital have seen an increase in COVID cases recently,” Sheldon said. According to Ansley Wittig, NCCH community relations coordinator, the increase was as much as 30% in the first two weeks of November.

It bears looking at because of Arizona’s COVID death rate in general.

Sheldon noted that “a study by Arizona Public Health Association showed that COVID-19 is the leading cause of death in Arizona during the coronavirus pandemic, between March 17, 2020, and Oct. 14, 2021.”

Two states with similar populations — Washington and Colorado — list COVID as the third leading cause of death, according to the study. Previously, heart disease had been the leading cause of death in Arizona.

Why is this happening?

“This is my opinion,” Thompson said. “I believe people are tired of the pandemic and are relaxing the use of mitigation measures that protect them from contracting COVID-19.”

She said good mitigation methods include “wearing a surgical or KN95 mask when in public or when visiting with friends and family who are not vaccinated, social distancing, washing hands, staying home when sick, getting tested after an exposure or when you have symptoms (and) staying away from large indoor gatherings.”

Ramanjulu offers this:

“The COVID-19 vaccine is truly our best defense against this pandemic, and if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, please know it’s not too late — particularly with this most recent surge in our community and across the country,” she said.

Sheldon said, “It is recommended that all who are eligible for vaccines, from children to elderly, should get vaccinated, and get a booster if possible. Avoid large crowds of unmasked people and groups that are unmasked or unvaccinated.”

Thompson said, “Get the treatment as soon as possible after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Our hospitals are at the tipping point and need our residents’ help to avoid having to go to crisis standards of care. Please do your part.”

The concern is how bad a surge the county will see as the holidays begin.

CCHS urges residents to continue to follow safety mitigations such as masking up in public indoor settings, physically distancing, frequently washing hands, getting tested and getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

Arizona Capital Times contributed to this report.